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Restaurant Industry Report: Change And Technology On The Menu

The National Restaurant Association, the country’s (and world’s) foodservice trade association, released its annual State of the Restaurant Industry report on Tuesday (Jan. 26) compiling and analyzing data elicited from 6,000 restaurant operators and 1,000 adult consumers. The report looks at sales expectations for the coming year, operational changes in the industry, consumer behavior, menu trends, employment statistics and more.

“Amid an ever-changing landscape of dining restrictions and widespread closures, restaurants found ways to adapt, keep people employed, and safely serve our guests,” CEO Tom Bené said in the report’s news release. “While we still have a long way to go, we are confident in the resilience of the industry’s workforce, operators, suppliers, and diners … Working together as one, I am confident in our ability to continue safely serving our guests and supporting our communities.”

When combined with expert analysis and illustrative success stories, the findings offer a blueprint for the restaurant industry going forward into another year of uncertainty and change.

1. Off-Premise Dining 

Unsurprisingly, consumers have been turning toward takeout and delivery options in the past year to enjoy restaurant-prepared meals from a safe social distance. The report noted that 68 percent of consumers are more likely than pre-pandemic to order takeout and that 53 percent consider takeout and delivery key to their lifestyle. Additionally, consumers prefer to order directly from their favorite restaurants rather than using a third-party service, with 64 percent of consumers expressing a preference for the former and only 18 percent for the latter.

PYMNTS researchers have identified the restaurants leading the remote ordering game in our Mobile Order-Ahead Tracker, where you can learn which restaurants are the top 10 mobile order-ahead providers and what services and technologies they use to lead the pack. Some of the techniques that quick-service restaurants are using to provide top order-ahead service include providing digital-only menu items to incentivize digital ordering, redesigning apps to minimize the number of clicks necessary to order and equipping restaurants with in-store technology that allows for more efficient order fulfillment.

2. Creating Culinary Experiences Remotely

As off-premise remains the norm, consumers are looking for ways to generate some of the excitement that they used to get from going out to a restaurant. The National Restaurant Association notes consumers’ interest in trying out new ordering experiences from familiar restaurants — the report identifies subscription servicesmeal kits, and bundled meals as key ordering innovations for 2021.

PYMNTS researchers have identified key ways restaurants and other food providers are creating at-home experiences for their customers in the 2021 New Merchant Business Models Playbook. Some dining establishments are pairing their meal kits with livestreamed cooking classes. Other offerings include Zoom-based wine-tasting parties and picnic boxes, which are intended to create social experiences that tie into restaurants’ areas of expertise, helping them remotely capture some of the more atmospheric factors that typically drive patronage.

3. Healthier And More Indulgent

The National Restaurant Association’s report found that consumers’ nutritional preferences have been polarizing, prioritizing healthy menu items more than before the pandemic and, on the other hand, looking for comfort foods. The report noted that consumers are more likely to shop at restaurants that offer healthy options and to shop at restaurants that offer familiar favorites. The report showed 38 percent of on-premises customers and 33 percent of off-premises indicated that their choice of restaurant would depend in part on comfort food availability. Also, 38 percent of on-premises customers reported that the availability of nutritious options would affect their choice.

In PYMNTS’ How We Eat Tracker, we noted the results of a survey that found that 39 percent of consumers are eating healthier foods, but 40 percent reported eating more “indulgent” fare. Ultimately, it comes down to consumers being able to feel in control of what they’re putting into their bodies in a time of widespread uncertainty.

“[Consumers] are putting a lot of focus on having control over their shopping experiences,” Eddie Garcia, senior vice president and chief product officer at Sam’s Club, told PYMNTS in a recent interview, “so we had to quickly react and provide them more choices to shop how they want.”

4. Excited To Return To Restaurants

The NRA report shows 85 percent of adults prefer going to restaurants with friends or family to cooking at home, and most consumers want to be dining on-premises more often. About eight in 10 adults aren’t eating in restaurants as they’d like to be and consumers are eager to return as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Of course, not all consumers are the same. PYMNTS identified the type of consumer most likely to return as soon as possible to on-premise dining in our The Great Reopening: Shifting Preferences tracker. “Convenience shifters,” consumers who put a premium on speed and convenience and are choosing merchants based on their digital offerings, are more likely than all other persona types to say they want to leave their homes to dine in restaurants. Additionally, “office shifters,” consumers who have shifted to working from home and want to go back to being outdoors and working in office environments, are the most eager to return to pre-pandemic, out-of-the-house activities. By targeting consumers who seek convenience and consumers eager to get a break from their home offices, restaurants can maximize on-premise dining.

While this year of rapid change and the equally uncertain year ahead pose major challenges for the restaurant industry, they’ve also showcased its enormous resilience and creativity.

As Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the association’s Research and Knowledge Group, says in the release, “with more than half of adults saying that restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyle, we are confident that, with time, the industry is positioned for successful recovery.”

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